Revolution! Revolution? War!
Graphic histories take on Trotsky, Che and Vietnam
by Suzi Steffen
TROTSKY: A Graphic Biography, by Rick Geary. $16.95.
CHE: A Graphic Biography, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. $22.
THE VIETNAM WAR: A Graphic History, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Wayne Vansant. $19.95.
Blood, gore, guts and a whole lot of men’s doings spill into the pages of these three recent works from Hill and Wang, whose graphic novels turn history and biography into artfully rendered illustrated explanations of complex events and personalities.
Trotsky and Che face similar issues: Both men died under clouds of failure while other representatives of their revolutions, men who didn’t agree with them on all fronts, lived on and wrote history. Che Guevara, obviously, has more pop culture cachet than Trotsky. The main knowledge of Trotsky for a graphic novel-reading audience may come from the 2002 movie Frida. Rick Geary (2008’s J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography, and talk about your whiplash: Hoover to Trotsky!) deftly reclaims Trotsky for a middle-class readership by claiming that the affair with Frida Kahlo, 27 years his junior, ended for Trotsky in shame and anger. A telling detail, he says, is that Trotsky’s wife couldn’t believe he’d stray because during their many years together, he had had only one mistress: the revolution.
Trotsky and Stalin harbored enmity from the moment they met, and Stalin obviously typified the worst aspects of totalitarianism and genocidal power, so Trotsky might appear to be the softer revolutionary. Geary doesn’t shy away from quoting Trotsky’s writings that were pro-revolutionary and pro-violent uprising, but the book (as with the Hoover book, actually) projects a sympathetic view of its starring character. Luckily, Geary gives suggestions for more reading, but it’s a good introduction, and the art, which emphasizes the isolation of Trotsky and his family members, leaves a searing reminder of a those who devote and sacrifice their lives to causes beyond their control. Trotsky’s travels on behalf of the revolution earned him jail time, several internal and external exiles, continual wandering and finally a bloody death at the hands of a Stalinist agent armed with an ice-axe.
At least Che got to face a firing squad. Guevara, also a tireless traveler, began his sojourns before he learned his politics; indeed, as the film Motorcycle Diaries made clear, travel through Latin American provided the politics for young Argentinian medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. Jacobson and Colón, whose quite brilliant The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adptation and similarly intelligent After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (2001- ), use sources ranging from Che’s diaries to Jon Lee Anderson’s 1997 biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life to academic discourses on Che in order to recount Che’s life.
Colón’s propulsive, full-color cartoons depict everything from the UN to Chilean copper mines to Prague. One full chapter in the book takes readers through every country in Latin America and each country’s history to the mid-1950s — a crash course from writer Jacobson in colonial rule, independence movements and CIA involvement in things like the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected Jacob Arbenz. Later in the book, when Che travels to Africa, there’s more information about the history of colonialism in various African countries. The book neither glorifies Che — Colón depicts the bloody results of revolution in vivid, agonizing detail — nor dismisses him, and it’s a good starting point for the open-ended question at the end of the book: “What does Guevara’s memory offer to the world today?”
In The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, Zimmerman’s writing and Vansant’s ink-wash portraits and landscapes clearly lay out important stages of the war from an entirely U.S. point of view. Though they make some attempt at neutrality, their opinions become obvious when they depict President Lyndon Johnson as lacking in leadership and will — if he’d only provided more resources, they seem to say, the U.S. could have won. Aside from that, and a curious, noticable lack of discussion about drugs, fragging, racism and morale issues, the author and illustrator do an excellent job of taking readers through the military decisions and actions of the U.S. and North Vietnam. Readers will definitely want to follow up with some of the suggested readings (including online sources).
Now, Hill and Wang, let me suggest you turn your considerable resources to histories of, about and written and illustrated by women.